Tiny Libraries, Tiny Parks… Tiny Museums?


Temporary green spaces, the size of a parking space.

Whimsical mailbox-sized structures holding a few dozen books.

When I read about “parkmobiles”, and later, about little libraries, I had a similar reaction to each. I thought, I hope these little parks/libraries serve as gateways to, and not substitutes for, real parks/libraries.

Parkmobiles are San Francisco’s mini-parks: dumpsters turned into green space that can be moved around and placed in parking spaces. A parkmobile consists of a garden bed of plants taking up most of the space, with a bench along the outside on which people can sit.

The response to these mini-parks, which appeared last summer, has been mixed. A visitor from the DC area described a parkmobile as something that “managed to pack such joy into such a small, little parcel…. I thought it was quirky and interesting and worth a photograph,” according to an LA Times article.

But a commenter on a San Francisco Gate article wrote, “Stupid, and a waste of space and someone’s money. If you want to see green, go to a damm park. There’s no shortage of them in this city.”

The idea of anyone thinking that a red dumpster with a few small trees in it could fulfill the human need for nature is enough to make me (not to mention certain friends and family members of mine who are much more ruggedly outdoorsy than I am) cry. Sitting on a bench, sipping your latte and checking your text messages with a few green leaves over your head is nothing like hiking in the woods and seeing wild animals. But what if these parkmobiles were embossed with a list of real parks nearby, parks that do quench human thirst for the immensity of the natural world? “Want to see more green?” a little plaque could read. “Go here, here, and here!”

Reactions to micro-libraries have been more positive. Everyone just seems to think they’re so darn stinking cute, and, well, I think so too. Many of these tiny depositories of books are works of art, decorated with pictures of birds or dogs, or simply painted in bright colors. A Wisconsin-based nonprofit, Little Free Library, is on a mission to put these itty bitty libraries everywhere. In Portland, Oregon, the presence of these micro-libraries has led residents to describe them with words like “magic,” “community,” and “inspiration.” Another WordPress blogger, Hey Jude, writes a glowing assessment of little libraries, and how their existence indicates the “cultural voice crying out that LIBRARIES MATTER.”

If there is any risk that parkmobiles supplant, rather than supplement, real parks, does the same risk exist for little libraries and real libraries? When someone has read all 15 books in a particular little library, hopefully this person knows where to find more books, along with all the other resources libraries have to offer. Public libraries also exist as a physical space (that lots of people can fit into at once, unlike a little mailbox of a library), allowing for lectures, children’s storytime, local art exhibits, classes, community meetings, job fairs, book clubs, and more. Just as I would like to see parkmobiles include lists of real parks, I would like to see mini-libraries include lists of bona fide public libraries.

So, what about museums? If we can have mini-parks and mini-libraries, can we have mini-museums? Could street corners have little glass-encased exhibits, or do museums’ differences from parks and libraries negate this possibility?

The idea raises several questions:

  • Who would decide what objects go in a tiny museum? Could they be crowd-curated, the way the little libraries are? Would there be oversight?
  • Where would the objects come from? Many people go to museums to see rare or valuable artifacts. The plants in the parkmobiles, and the books in the mini-libraries, are not rare or worth lots of money. Would people be interested in stopping by a tiny museum whose artifacts are not that precious?
  • Where would mini-museums be located? In “museum deserts”? Or near real museums, to entice people to come inside? (If the latter, many museums are already doing this with outdoor exhibits and sculpture gardens. But what about a tiny museum, near large museums, that is not affiliated with said large museums?)
  • And, who would be the intended audience? Perhaps those who would otherwise not consider going to a museum?

If mini-museums do arise, I hope that they too supplement real museums, rather than taking their place or making people think they have no need for the real thing.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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2 Responses to Tiny Libraries, Tiny Parks… Tiny Museums?

  1. Diana says:

    I can’t see mini-museums replacing the real thing, at least not for me. If I were to come across one, I think my thought processes would be more along the lines of, “This is great! I otherwise probably would never have gone to a museum today or anytime in the near future. This reminds me of how much I miss going to museums. I should try to get out and see a real museum sometime soon.” Even if I don’t actually end up going to a museum in the near future, at least the idea of museums was brought closer to the forefront of my consciousness, which is better than not thinking about them at all.

    • disciullo says:

      That’s exactly how I hope people see the parkmobiles. I hope they’re thinking, “Oh yeah, that reminds me, I should go to a park!” and not “Oh, now I don’t need to go to a real park!”

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